In January I posted a blog entitled “423 Homes…and now it gets Ugly”. Last week in the Ashbourne News Telegraph we had a letter from a Planning Consultant and an advertisement on behalf of his client which showed just how ugly we can expect it to become.
Just as a reminder…the consultation for this was last year. A large public meeting was held in the Town Hall initially where large numbers of local residents aired their views. The responses to the consultation included a letter from the agent representing Leys Farm with a summary appearing in the recommendation. There was then a final meeting where people were invited to speak and then the decision was made by the Councillors to recommend the Airfield for new housing development with additional use of a lower section of Hillside Farm if the timescales could not be met.
First Mr Collins’ letter. This lays out the grubby strategy very clearly. Remember, in order for him to earn his fees he has to persuade people that the Airfield should not be used AND that the Hillside Farm site should not be used. He then has to highlight why Leys Farm should be chosen rather than Willow Meadow Farm. The letter has been placed to set the scene and direct readers to then go and look at his advertisement.
In the letter he begins by stating that since he was born in the Derbyshire Dales “it might sound corny, but I care about the place”. It does sound corny and Derbyshire Dales is a big place. His address has been withheld by the Stunner but I don’t want someone who could live in Matlock professing affection for my town and looking after my best interests.
The letter’s summary is that not all Greenfield sites are the same (for this read Hillside Farm is not as good as Leys Farm) and that misinformation led to the recommendation for the Airfield.
The advertisement in the middle pages is a long and rambling piece with some truly terrible photographs, bold text, and capitalisation. In amongst it are challenges to 8 “misconceptions” and an “Illustrative Masterplan”.
The 8 “misconceptions” are:
1. The Airfield is a worthless derelict brownfield site
2. All greenfield sites are important to the setting of the town and development on them would be damaging to wildlife
3. The Airfield has little or no value for wildlife
4. Development of Leys Farm would be detrimental to Public Access and recreation for existing residents
5. Development of Leys Farm would create flooding problems
6. The airfield is a suitable, convenient location for new housing
7. The Airfield is more sustainable than Leys Farm
8. The new housing will me mainly occupied by newcomers
As someone who attended the meetings and read all the paperwork I don’t even think these were the issues never mind the misconceptions but, to save Mr Collins blushes, I will show him more respect than he has shown many other people by discussing his arguments. I can’t afford a double page spread in the local newspaper unfortunately.
1. The Airfield is a worthless derelict site. Right at the beginning, way before the discussion began, I think this may have been people’s perception. This was corrected at the Public meeting and in submissions to the Planners. I think we have all learned something through this process and understand there is good agricultural land there too. There is still lots of brownfield land too though. The tone of the piece is wonderfully summed up by “once the runways are lost they will never be replaced and part of Ashbourne’s history and heritage will be lost forever”. There speaks a man who has his finger on the pulse of Ashbourne feeling. Just in case you aren’t sure there are three pictures of crops – but no pictures of runway and rubble.
2. Mr Collins has a good point to be made about Greenfield sites – they aren’t all the same. He goes on however to define the value of Greenfield sites for Ashbourne as impairing the view from the Conservation area, St Oswald’s Church and , bizarrely, Belle Vue Road. I can only think Belle Vue Road was included because you can see Hillside Farm from it…very odd. As a planning consultant surely Mr Collins knows Green belt protection is about much more than the views from the town centre. The ugliest, least historic towns still protect their boundaries to prevent sprawling into the countryside.
3. The comments on the wildlife are quite funny really. Mr Collins is clearly no naturalist because he would be worried more about the buzzards, bats, red-legged partridge, passage redwings and fieldfares, nuthatches, and skylarks on his own Leys Farm than the report that a pair of snipe have been spotted on the airfield and that you can see Bradley Wood from the Airfield.
4. I have honestly never heard any reference to limitations on access to Leys Farm as a concern. I can only think this was included to draw attention to the half page diagram of the Illustrative Masterplan. This wonderful picture (illustrative remember – not contractually binding) makes the site look like Center Parcs. Who wouldn’t want the Wildflower Meadow (hang on…havent residents already got this), balancing ponds (have you seen the state of the one which is already there), Community Woodland (what on earth is that?), fitness trail and two play areas? We don’t have a great track record of holding developers to account to actually do the nice fluffy stuff they offer as sweeteners – there always seems to be a reason why once the houses/shops etc are up the ground rules have changed. Something which has never been raised is that the site is already used and has been used for many years for public recreation – hundreds of people use it as a sledging field each year and there could be a case to be made for Village Green status.
5. Flooding has never been raised as an issue either for this site but it has been an issue for the town. The current balancing pond is in a disgraceful state with rubbish regularly accumulating.
6. This is possibly the most venomous and misleading of Mr Collins work. He seems to think that the people of Ashbourne voted for the Airfield. He must know that the process was a consultation – there has never been a ballot and the Councillors made the decision on the evidence (including his). He is also personally abusive to Peter Fox and Ashbourne Aware. I will make it clear I have no affiliation with Peter or Ashbourne Aware. I have met him very briefly on a couple of occasions. I don’t necessarily agree with all his views but I do greatly admire his personal commitment to making people aware of the issues. He has had all the opportunities that John Collins has but he has not been paid for the privilege of his “expertise”. We all know the Airfield, probably better than Mr Collins does. We know that if a developer wants to build homes they have to put the infrastructure in place and they can landscape the site to make a pleasant environment – we are not daft enough to think you just start putting foundations down on a runway! The original briefing from the Council Planners suggested that the main reason the Airfield was not the first choice was due to the time it would take to commence. The subsequent conversations and meetings completely changed this and this was the main reason the Airfield became the preferred site as Mr Collins well knows.
7. I think Mr Collins was running out of steam by this stage. Of course the Airfield is out of the town centre but so is Leys Farm. The site is on a hill too so the “short walk just across the road to Hilltop School” may be true if you live at the top but not if you are down the bottom. Will the children then be walking to QEGS or will they need a lift or bus ride? The site will not be large enough to support a local school apparently – please explain the situation in Osmaston and Clifton then.
8. This is a really challenging topic. Affordable Housing is very difficult for anyone to guarantee. The builders are long gone by the time the buy-to-renters have stepped in as we have seen from other developments. Building houses the right size is not the issue – it si the mechanism of ensuring they fall into the right hands at the right price which is the challenge and this is the same issue regardless of location.
The campaign orchestrated by Mr Collins on behalf of his client is ugly. He can walk away with his fees in his pocket and leave the rest of us to mop up the mess he has left behind. The whole purpose of the democratic planning process is that our elected members can evaluate information from experts and the stakeholders like Mr Collins and make their decision. They have met lobbyists, NIMBYs, builders, and landowners many times before and they aren’t easily swayed. Mr Collins has managed to insult the integrity of them all for the sake of money. Sadly I don’t think it will be last of this kind of thing.